Sarah Hunter; Ramona Quimby’s Cousins; The Booklist (Chicago); Jul 2014.
Madrid (1933) by Henri Cartier-Bresson
Dr. Meinard Kuhlmann
Physicists speak of the world as being made of
particles and force fields, but it is not at all clear
what particles and force fields actually are in the
quantum realm. The world may instead consist
of bundles of properties, such as color and shape.
Physicists routinely describe the universe as being made of tiny subatomic particles that push and pull on one another by means of
force fields. They call their subject “particle physics” and their instruments “particle accelerators.”
They hew to a Lego-like model of the
world. But this view sweeps a little-known
fact under the rug: the particle interpretation
of quantum physics, as well as the field interpretation,
stretches our conventional notions
of “particle” and “field” to such an extent that
ever more people think the world might be
made of something else entirely.
The problem is not that physicists lack a valid theory of the
subatomic realm. They do have one: it is called quantum field theory.
Theorists developed it between the late 1920s and early 1950s
by merging the earlier theory of quantum mechanics with Einstein’s
special theory of relativity. Quantum field theory provides
the conceptual underpinnings of the Standard Model of particle
physics, which describes the fundamental building blocks of matter
and their interactions in one common framework. In terms of
empirical precision, it is the most successful theory in the history
of science. Physicists use it every day to calculate the aftermath of
particle collisions, the synthesis of matter in the big bang, the extreme conditions inside atomic nuclei, and much besides.
So it may come as a surprise that physicists are not even sure
what the theory says—what its “ontology,” or basic physical picture,
is. This confusion is separate from the much discussed mysteries
of quantum mechanics, such as whether a cat in a sealed
box can be both alive and dead at the same time. The unsettled
interpretation of quantum field theory is hobbling progress toward
probing whatever physics lies beyond the Standard Model,
such as string theory. It is perilous to formulate a new theory
when we do not understand the theory we already have.
At first glance, the content of the Standard Model appears
obvious. It consists, first, of groups of elementary particles,
such as quarks and electrons, and, second, of four types of force
fields, which mediate the interactions among those particles.
This picture appears on classroom walls and in Scientific American
articles. However compelling it might appear, it is not at
For starters, the two categories blur together. Quantum field
theory assigns a field to each type of elementary particle, so
there is an electron field as surely as there is an electron. At the
same time, the force fields are quantized rather than continuous,
which gives rise to particles such as the photon. So the distinction
between particles and fields appears to be artificial, and
physicists often speak as if one or the other is more fundamental.
Debate has swirled over this point—over whether quantum
field theory is ultimately about particles or about fields. It started
as a battle of titans, with eminent physicists and philosophers
on both sides. Even today both concepts are still in use for
illustrative purposes, although most physicists would admit
that the classical conceptions do not match what the theory
says. If the mental images conjured up by the words “particle”
and “field” do not match what the theory says, physicists and
philosophers must figure out what to put in their place.
With the two standard, classical options gridlocked, some philosophers of physics have been formulating more radical alternatives.
They suggest that the most basic constituents of the material
world are intangible entities such as relations or properties.
One particularly radical idea is that everything can be reduced to
intangibles alone, without any reference to individual things. It is
a counterintuitive and revolutionary idea, but some argue that
physics is forcing it on us.
THE TROUBLE WITH PARTICLES
When most people, including experts, think of subatomic reality,
they imagine particles that behave like little billiard balls rebounding
off one another. But this notion of particles is a holdover
of a worldview that dates to the ancient Greek atomists and
reached its pinnacle in the theories of Isaac Newton. Several overlapping lines of thought make it clear that the core units of quantum field theory do not behave like billiard balls at all.
“Euclid’s first common notion is this: ‘Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.’ That’s a rule of mathematical reasoning. It’s true because it works. Has done and always will do. In his book, Euclid says this is self-evident. You see, there it is. Even in that 2,000 year old book of mechanical law, it is a self-evident truth that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.”
–Lincoln quoting Euclid in the new movie “Lincoln”
Edward Carpenter (August 29, 1844 – June 28, 1929) on the left with his life partner George Miller on the right, was an English socialist poet, philosopher, anthologist, and early LGBT activist. A poet and writer, he was a close friend of Rabindranath Tagore, and a friend of Walt Whitman. Wikipedia
“Of all the hard facts of science, I know of none more solid and fundamental than the fact that if you inhibit thought (and persevere) you come at length to a region of consciousness below or behind thoughts…. and a realization of an altogether vaster self than that to which we are accustomed. And since the ordinary consciousness, with which we are concerned in ordinary life is before all things founded on the little local self, and is in fact self-consciousness in the little, local sense and the ordinary world, it follows that to pass out of that is to die to the ordinary self and the ordinary world.
“It is to die in the ordinary sense, but in another sense, it is to wake up and find that the ‘I’ , one’s real, most intimate self pervades the universe and all other beings….. So great, so splendid is this experience, that it may be said that all minor questions and doubts fall away in face of it; and certain it is that in thousands and thousands of cases the fact of its having come even once to a man has completely revolutionized his subsequent life and outlook on the world.”
–Edwin Carpenter from his book The Drama of Love and Death
“You shall not come forth until you have paid the utmost farthing.”
–George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, also commonly referred to as G. I. Gurdjieff (January 13, 1866 – October 29, 1949), was an influential early 20th century Russian mystic, philosopher, spiritual teacher, and composer of Armenian and Greek descent.Wikipedia
“The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”
–Muhammad Ali (January 17, 1942 – June 3, 2016) was an American professional boxer, generally considered among the greatest heavyweights in the history of the sport. Wikipedia